Afrikan Dancers as Embodied Archives: Contemporary Movements as Evolving Archives
Dodzi K. Aveh
JC Niala’s essay Afrikan Dancers as Embodied Archives speaks to a phenomenon I find very interesting; performance as an unorthodox archive. A topic that changed the whole direction of my art practice and academic journey. A lot of the history I know about my ancestry comes from my encounters with African performance art. The act of documentation was done through music, poetry and dance and it is this same subconscious practice done by the ancients to preserve and archive knowledge, that still plays out today through our contemporary performances, especially hip-hop dance.
Reading both JC Niala and Temitayo Ince’s essays on Krumping threw my mind back to my encounter with the Krump scene two years ago in my country, Ghana. Everything was starting to pick up again after the Covid19 pandemic, but I had been inactive as a performance artist for over a year and now here I was as an artist in residence at Terra Alta, a private experimental theatre space in Accra. During this residency, I met Twitches who was then an intern at the same space. We were both graduates from the school of performing arts, University of Ghana Legon, but we were in different departments but we knew each other as familiar faces. One day at rehearsal I saw Twitches Krumping in the dance studio and I stopped a while to watch him; I observed the poetry in his movement and this sparked my interest in Krumping. Afterwards we spoke and explored the possibility of me drawing inspiration from Krumping to work on my solo performance which I was in residence for. Through Twitches I begun to follow the Krumping scene in Ghana and the registered organisation called Krump Ghana that organises events and competitions for dancers.
In Conversation with Twitches
After reading both essays, my train of thought began to flow in the direction of what Krump might mean to Krump dancers in Ghana who are physically detached from the LA scene and the rest of the diaspora. What are the stories being told in their movement? What does this mean to them? So I reached out to Twitches to have a conversation.
I asked him how he got into Krumping, to which he responded that while in high school, he came across videos on the internet from Miss Prissy and fell in love with the dance. He then went on to talk about one particular day in high school: “I met someone on campus in my senior high school who was dancing crazily around 1am... he was dancing at 1am outside, and how he was moving... I said to myself, is this not Krumping? Because earlier I was introduced to Krumping... I was being taught by some street dancers I knew, but what they did was not like the videos I used to see. But I asked myself if what I saw at 1am on that day was Krumping, and then it got intense and I really wanted to know more about the dance. I didn’t get to watch Rize early on but once I started dancing I watched it and it boosted my desire to learn more.”
I asked what does the dance mean to him?
“To me Krump is freedom and Krump is time, it is like past… present… future, for me every moment I find myself is a revelation, I get a revelation, it’s a connection of past, present and even what is about to happen in the future…that is what Krumping means to me. Time in Krumping is my way of letting go.”
My next question was around if he had any personal or communal trauma that he expresses through Krump?
“I don’t really have any personal trauma behind why I Krump. I actually started Krumping based on love, so whenever I Krump it is like love, it is freedom for me, yes, it is freedom for me. The only thing I’ll say is... sometimes in case I feel anyway... I go to the lab and Krump... bang bang... I do my Krump, I do my thing and it’s like a relief for me.”
I asked if he had noticed any similarities between traditional Ghanaian dance movements and Krumping. “I really see the link between them. I’m like wow... Bawa, I used to relate it to Krumping. I feel the connection between Bawa and the Krump chest puff… the chest puff is defined as an engine to keep your Krump going. And in Bawa you have a similar thing, and how they stamp their feet and then their chest is just pumping, they’re just breathing in and out... and the chest is just coming out... the second chest puff, it’s nice... its really beautiful. There are more coincidences.”
Our conversation evolved into me asking if he ever does intentional fusions of traditional dance in Krumping? “I don’t see it as this being something else I can add, I see it as a point where they both meet, a meeting point for all styles... in Africa we have our own style of Krumping, we call it Afro Buck... it is basically just being yourself, so we flow like that, it just comes and we go.”
The Bawa Dance
Inspired by my conversation with Twitches I looked into the Bawa dance which he mentioned hoping to see similarities between the dance and Krump.
The dance traditionally belongs to the Dagaaba people of the upper west region of Ghana and was created after a conflict between two warlords, Samori and Babatouri. Samori threw a celebration after defeating Babatouri and through that celebration the dance was created. After this it was turned into a harvest dance performed every new year to thank the gods for a successful farming season.
Lawra Bawa Group from The Upper West Region of Ghana, published by this week tv, 2012
The dance is led by a dancer signaling a troupe of both male and female dancers with a whistle, the whistle acts as a lead melody over the main melody from both a male and a female xylophone backed by percussion from handheld dondo drums. The movements are very swift and the dancers have rattles on their feet to create a rhythm that stays in sync with what is being played. There is a movement that involves rapidly squatting and imitating the action of squatting to plant sorghum seeds as in common in the farming traditions of the dagaba people. This rapid squat movement is quite similar to Krump. There is the chest puff movement that Twitches spoke about which is also backed by arm and torso movements which are also quite similar to Krump.
Afro Buck and Krump in West Africa
I was invited by Twitches and the rest of the community to participate in a street performance arts festival dubbed The Art of Independence. It started with performance art workshops throughout the week and then on 6th of March 2023 there was a series of performances on the streets of Jamestown to commemorate our interpretation of Ghana’s independence. At this event I met up with the rest of the Ghanaian Krump community and some Krump dancers from Nigeria. Among them was Smack Addy, a pioneer of the Afro Buck style that Twitches had spoken to me about. I saw Smack lead a workshop on Krumping, where he took the team of dancers through a set of different Krump moves and then they pieced everything together in a routine. After the workshop the floor was opened for anyone to freestyle and this is when things begun to get intense. I saw different dancers step into the circle to show what they could do, how they danced and got lost in the spirit of the moment. The energy of the crowd begun to get intense and the energy in the dancers intensified. In these moments I’m able to see and feel a sense of familiarity with the movement of the individual dancers which grows until I see recognisable dance moves from traditional dances like Bawa, Adowa, Agbadza and Kpanlogo, yet at the same time I realise that the dancers are still Krumping.
The energy was very similar to certain Vodun rituals where dancers offer themselves to be possessed by ancestral spirits and dance possession dances, but this dance was secular and had little religious significance.
My AfroBuck Story with SMACKADDY, published by Addy Daniels, 2023
I spoke with Smack about Afro Buck as I wanted to know exactly what it is and how it is growing.
He told me that it was not originally called Afro Buck. He traced it back to contemporary dance ciphers in Nigeria and how the competitive culture pushes dancers involved in freestyle battles to be creative and learn to move to any music played. It is out of this versatility that Afro Buck was born. He mentioned an instance where Tight Eyez a pioneer of Krump was battling Toyin, a Nigerian dancer who danced to a song by TerryG a Nigerian musician, and Tight Eyez had to freestyle Krump to her choice of music in the second round. Inspired by that and other freestyle videos he had seen on the internet, he and his friend Nas the magnificent - also a Krump dancer - decided to do a video Krumping to an afro house song by Niniola, a Nigerian Afro house musician. Their video went viral and trended for days which lead to Niniola reposting it on her page. They were impressed because Krump was not taken very seriously in Nigeria because the dance was detached from its history. After Niniola reposted their first video in 2019 they continued to intentionally post more videos of them Krumping to afrobeats and some of the artists reposted their videos and commented under the videos too. Kwame Kideyez Osei (Kid Tight Eyez) - a German based Krump dancer of Ghanaian decent - was invited to do a Krump workshop in Nigeria which they both attended and then met up with him. Kwame told them he had been seeing their videos on the internet and wanted to join them in doing what they were doing and it was he who suggested the name Afro Buck. The three of them then made a video using the #AfroBbuck hashtag. To Nas and Smack, the name has placed an identity on what it was they had been doing and which people were loving. Then the Covid19 pandemic hit, and for them, during that period, they focused on developing the style and putting out more content. In 2022 Smack was invited to France to participate in the Afropolis festival held in Marseilles where he taught an Afro Buck class - for him this was the big league, the style was starting to go global.
WHAT IS AFROBUCK // NAS MAGNIFICENT X SMACK. Published by NasMagnificent, 2021
In his own words “I feel like Afro Buck is us being true to ourselves. Afro Buck is like when the western people came they gave us English, but now we have pidgin English.”
He admits that there are limitations for him and other west African dancers who are embracing and expressing themselves through just Krump, because they are detached from and don’t relate directly to the realities that inspired Tight Eyez and the other originators of Krump. They are able to overcome these limitations through the expressive and dramatic performativity that comes to them naturally as Nigerian dancers. And so they begun to take inspiration from their community and created movements based on the different emotions they saw being expressed around them in the streets and market places. Smack speaks about taking inspiration to create movements from observing an old woman whose son returned from the city with expensive gifts for her and he wanted to capture the expressiveness of her joy through Krump. In his own words’ “Imagine an old woman, imagine her expression when her son who left the city years ago to go and hustle, he now returns with gifts for her... imagine the cacophonic joy that is beyond what the human eye can see, cos only she can understand where that is coming from. Imagine how she will dance? So we decided to pick expressions like this and put them in the Krump which had already been made by Tight Eyez.”
Smack sees Krump as a tool and decided to look within himself to find what roots he could express using that tool. For him Krump is bigger than him, it is bigger than Afro Buck, and bigger than even Tight Eyez himself. Afro Buck is about them creating an identity in the Krump space and should not be seen as a pollution of Krump or a change of its narrative because at the heart of Krump he sees the dance movement as having roots in traditional west African dances. Smack mentions Krump movements are very similar to traditional Nigerian Masquerade dances. “If you check the similarities of Krump, it is no different from our own indigenous dance steps... so it is just us tracing back to where we are from... unknowingly. I know this argument is going to come up where people will say how come Krump is said to be a western thing when all the movements and gestures and postures looks like a Masquerade dancing... you need to see the masquerade dancing. They dance with high intensity, just like how rock is a heavy genre of music, Krump is heavy, Krump is radical, Krump is emotional, just like where we come from... that is our culture, all of this is us tracing back to our fathers and grandfathers.”
He likens the Krump spaces in Nigeria where he and his friends and colleagues meetup to dance to the indigenous community squares that his ancestors met up in to tell stories.
IGBANMAWN NDI IGBO ....MY CULTURE.. MY PRIDE .. Published by IKORONDIGBO TV, 2017
The Body of the Dancer and the Performance as a Living Archive.
In JC Niala’s paper she speaks to the fact that the violence that inspired the creation of Krump as a dance form is not just personal to that community but is quite common across different inner cities across the globe. As such people all over the world who exist in similar realities will be able to draw inspiration from Krump because of their relation to similar stories archived in their dance practice. This phenomenon is not just particular to Krumping, I documented how drill became asakaa in Ghana, in my previous essay The Woo Dance vs Kete: Tradition Recycled or Coincidence? So it was no surprise for me to discover Twitches relation to Krumping.
Unlike the creators of Krump, Twitches doesn’t have any personal or communal relationship to the dance moves, yet his body and his mind are able to pick up on some of the stories archived in the dance form. Whenever he dances it - even when he is across the globe - once he opens himself up to the dance he starts to feel freedom. The “relief” of which he speaks about and what he finds in the dance is the very thing he saw in the high school on that fateful day at 1am. It is common for artists to enter a meditative state mid performance and the cathartic nature of this is very liberating. As a performer, I am familiar with this phenomenon. Though I’m not a dancer, there are certain moments mid performance, mid rehearsal or even mid production where I could be writing a poem, rapping, or creating a theatrical piece, that once I let myself go into the flow, everything starts to feel euphoric. It’s just like how Twitches describes it, the past, present and future seem to become one.
As an African, I have come to understand that this spiritual experience has roots linking it to indigenous griot traditions. On this side of the world, the histories and memories of communities were archived as performances. To those of us who grew up connected to these traditions and seeing them evolve over time, we tend to overlook the fact that though we are actively practicing our artforms outside of a traditional spiritual context, the spirit of tradition is still present in our performances. When we look deep in ourselves we see glimpses of that, it is why people like twitches can draw and feel connections between two different traditions that are so similar yet were born out of two completely different times.
Smack approaches Krump from an interesting perspective. He is able to draw linkages of what he’s seen and learned to what is felt and expressed in his community. This is possible for him because he sees similarities between Krump and indigenous Nigerian dances. It is out of this paradigm that Afro Buck grows and it can be seen as an extension of the ever-evolving archive that the performance and the body of Afrikan Performers is.
As a student of the performing arts, one lesson I became familiar with quickly was that African performance was deliberately used by our ancestors as a knowledge repository. Among my people - the Ewes of southern Ghana - there is a dance performed every year at the Hogbetsotso festival called Misago. It is done to remind us of how our ancestors escaped the tyrant king Agorkorli of Notsie many years ago. The mythology says that under the guidance of the great Sage Torgbui Tsali our ancestors broke through the walls of Notsie and walked backwards to freedom. It is that backward walk to freedom that was archived as the Misago dance.
Other instances like this are are played out across the diaspora including how slaves in Brazil hid their martial arts in the capoeira dance as a means to pass on tradition without getting killed by imperialists.
Performance and Performativity
To further understand what the connection between Krump and west African traditional dances was, I reached out to Terry Bright Ofosu, a lecturer at the Department of Dance studies at the University of Ghana. Terry was a hip-hop dancer in Ghana in the late 90s and early 2000s before he went into academia where he is noted for doing extensive research work on contemporary dance in Ghana, specifically hip-hop dance. He referred me to a paper titled “Globalization and the Hip-hop cypher” which he co-wrote with Halifu Osumare as part of the recently published The Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Dance Studies. The paper explores what it labels as the “global-local problematic” with reference to hip-hop dance. A phenomenon that explores how dance movements originating from Africa evolved into hip-hop dance and how globalisation transplanted this subculture back to Africa and across the globe thus creating pockets of localised hip-hop dance scenes all evolving differently. The paper closely follows the hip-hop dance scene in Hawaii and Ghana in the late 90s and early 2000s respectively.
The paper links the early hip-hop dance scene in Ghana to the children of the then upper-class citizens who first had direct access and consumed American media - either through television, VCR or later via CD rentals. It wasn’t until they replicated these dances in the club that they were copied by people from other classes of society who did not have direct access to the same American media. This led to hip-hop dances like b-boying becoming popular on the streets of Accra and dance battles and ciphers became frequent too.
It goes on to describe the dance cipher as a place of higher consciousness in which the continuation of tradition is developed; that’s to say that in a cypher a very creative dancer is able to determine the direction the dance style will grow into. It is through this process where we see the fusion of traditional dance and hip-hop dance here in Ghana.
In a typical Ghanaian hip-hop cypher the dance usually starts with learned moves, moves that the dancers have picked up either primarily or secondary from American media. As the cypher progresses and the dancers exhaust their borrowed stories and moves, the need to impress a local audience with new creativity leads them into the realm of translating familiar movements from traditional dances into the hip-hop cypher.
It is this phenomenon that Ofosu and Osumare refer to as Performance and Performativity. How hip-hop dance in Ghana is a merging of the replication of an observed performance, and the indigenisation that goes into the process of executing that said performance with localised references. This makes it relatable to a Ghanaian audience who are detached from the realities that inspired the original dance style and would be needed to fully appreciate the said performance. That is why dancers like Twitches and Smack - who are detached from the realities that inspired Krump - are still able to hop on it, relate and make it their own.
It’s through the existence of Afro Buck that we get to see how Krump can evolve into something different under a context of localised performativity in Nigeria and then how that is then exported globally.
This theory of performance and performativity isn’t just peculiar to dance but music too and it is because of this that subgenres of hip-hop like hiplife developed. This is where we were seeing hip-hop being fused with traditional music and languages which went on to inspire the contemporary dance scene in Ghana.
Ofosu and Osumare speak on how hip-hop dance itself already has its social identities embedded and codified in its performance before it is globally exported. With the case of Krumping we see it play out through the evolution of Clowning into Krumping, and the new realities we see captured in the film Rize. The dance form is received in West Africa and through the development of its performativity and an indigenisation process it develops into Afro Buck. The Hip-hop dancer now becomes a living, evolving archive that carries the documentation of the evolution of the dance form along with pieces of the different stories that inspired the origins and evolution of the form. The hip-hop dancer and the dance are not just a collective archive of the history of the dance but are key to its future. The internet can transport Afro Buck either back to the USA or anywhere in the world and evolve into something entirely new. Ofosu and Osumare attribute this to the room for improvisation offered by the presence of freestyle in hip-hop dance. Improvisation which they themselves describe as a trait of African dance.
A point that was also made by Smack in my interview with him.
“It is difficult to fake either performance or performativity in the moment-by-moment improvisational dance cipher. One must represent the soul force implicit in individual dance improvisation as one “reps” one’s hood.”
It is this soul force that Ofosu and Osumare speak of that Twitches describes as the point where the past, present and future become one. The moment of truth where the dancer gets lost in the performance and the different stories archived become one and evolve into something new. It is this same paradigm of improvisation and spontaneity that sparked the flames of Afro Buck and continue to push its evolution in documenting the current localised realities in Nigeria using Krump as a borrowed tool and now exporting this new dance to the rest of the world.
For me it is this moment that the hip-hop dancer in Ghana, Nigeria and west Africa is able to connect with the griot traditions of performance archiving which are preserved through the different traditions and have paved the metaphorical road that the Hip Hop dancer now walks on.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to Afrikan Dancers As Embodied Archives by JC Niala
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Dodzi K Aveh
Dodzi Korsi Aveh, aka Who Is Deydzi, is pathing his own way in the Ghanaian arts, telling stories though spoken word poetry, theatre, film and other visual Arts. As a child he would write his first poems and lyrics as a coping mechanism for his parents' divorce and a crisis surrounding his identity as a Ewe person, since he was struggling with not speaking native Ewe. This coping method soon became a 9 year poetry journey and
would turn into a music career. His sound incorporates his poetry background with traditional Ewe sounds, Hip Hop and Alte influences. Now having released 3 albums, Who Is Deydzi is blooming into an impressive emerging musician, deserving of much more recognition. He's previously performed alongside Black Sherrif at Afrochella
and set to perform in Accra later this year whilst he completes his Theatre Arts MA at the University of Ghana. Highly ambitious, moralistic and creative, Who Is Deydzi is one to watch in the emerging Ghanaian music scene.
Kofi Awoonor, Kendrick Lamar, Asakaa
Dodzi K Aveh